If you want to fight or flee when dealing with difficult questions or reactions to a pitch or presentation, here are six tips to help you deal with them, whilst maintaining grace under fire and leave your credibility intact.
Firstly, don’t get confused between a difficult question and difficult people. . A difficult question might be from the most amiable person in the room but it’s the content of what they’re saying that is testing.
Tip No. 1
Separate the content from the tone of the question or comment. This is especially useful when there seems to be some aggression behind what’s being said. Instead of instantly reacting, pause and rephrase or repeat the question back to the individual. This buys you time and gives them the chance to ‘repackage’ their statement or query. The presenter in one presentation, which I attended, did this and discovered that the seething woman sitting in front him with her spiky remark, was, in fact, agreeing with his point of view. If he’d just reacted to her tone, he’d have missed the opportunity to clarify his key point and a needless confrontation might have boiled up.
Tip No. 2
When it comes to difficult members of your audience, they tend to appear either on the presenter’s left hand side or right at the back of the audience.
I haven’t got a clue why the left hand side seems to throw out people biting at the bit for a show-down, but those sharpening their tongues at the back are easier to explain. They have a ‘you can’t get me’ belief accompanied by a notion of anonymity. There are several ways to snap that illusion:
1) Have a microphone passed around your audience. In the time it takes for the microphone to arrive in the hands of someone chomping at the bit with a thorny question or opinion, they’d have decided not to be heard by everyone else and will keep their query or thoughts to themselves.
2) Make it a general practice in the Q & A for your audience to announce their names and where they come from (Mars in the case of some, but you’ll only be able to tell when they open their mouths).
3) If you can, make to walk towards them. It might not quash that particular member of your audience but it’ll put down any invalid responses that might have otherwise been brewing.
Tip No. 3
You might have audience greedy for your attention in the Q & A. They ask, you answer, they comment and ask another question, you respond, they seek further clarification and before you know it you’ve got a 30 minute two way conversation which leaves everyone checking for new Apps on their PDA’s. Use a delaying statement like:
‘Obviously, you’ve got a few more questions. Let’s talk about this after the session.‘
By the end of the session, they’ve probably had a bit of a muse and the doubts have evaporated. If not, so you’ll deal with it after the session instead of having that conversation monopolise the whole presentation. Then turn away from them: it’s important, at this point, not to look back. Once you’ve turned and walked to a different part of the stage, you’re politely saying ‘I’ve dealt with that’. Looking back shows uncertainty and invites a person to call your attention back towards them.
Tip No. 4
If you’re getting the same objections again and again in your presentations or pitches then why on earth aren’t you
pre-empting them by sticking them at the front of your talk: ‘I know many of you are wondering how this system is going to make your lives any easier when it feels like your teeth are being pulled.’ Or pre-empt with an attention grabber such as ‘This system is a complete waste of time’... This is what I’ve been hearing over the last 2 weeks. Of course, why would you think otherwise? I think it’s about time I told you why this upheaval in the short term will pay off and make your lives easier in the long run.’
Tip No. 5
Refocus questions to bat them away. Use this technique when you get sidetracked. Use phrases such as:
‘The essential question to ask is...’
‘The real issue here is...’
Tip No. 6
Hypothetical Questions such as ‘What if the targets fall below your expectations?’ can entrap you into a long, hypothetical debate. It’s like walking in a meadow, and slowly realising you’re in the jungle. You want to get out but you don’t know how. Use the refocusing to pull the questioner back on the track you want. An example might be, ‘There are a number of factors that we’ve considered in regard to this...’ then you progress onto a summary of the key pointers to success, which you covered in your talk, rather than becoming trapped in a knotted wire of ‘What if’s...’.
All in all remember that whatever question or comment springs from your audience don’t get personal: treat the individual with respect and grace. And if you think this person deserves less, take a deep breath, pause and repeat the question to buy you time before responding rashly.
How you deal with difficult questions is the mark of your ability to handle sales objections or difficult people in a way that adds value to your whole presentation and beyond that, your belief in your product and yourself.
Alison Kemp is Director of Switch Vision, which provides knock-out training in interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Look at how we can make you the best you can be (better than Gillette: the effects last much longer than a shave). We’re at www.switchvision.co.uk